Pivot With Purpose: Lessons In Corporate Resiliency

If your sole purpose in business is to make money, when an economic crisis hits, you’re going to flounder. In a time of economic volatility, the firms who define themselves by their earnings alone will be hard pressed to rally their teams or innovate on behalf of their customers.

Contrast firms whose single North Star is money with organizations who have a customer-focused purpose bigger than money. A team aligned to improve life for customers has somewhere positive to look during a crisis. They’re less likely to panic because customers still need their help. Clarity of purpose improves resilience. For example, the hotel industry was amongst the hardest hit by the COVID crisis. The revenue impact was immediate, and likely long lasting. But one chain in particular found themselves turning to a noble purpose to weather the storm.

When Hilton Founder, Conrad Hilton said, “It has been, and continues to be, our responsibility to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality,” he had no way of knowing that 100 years later, the employees of Hilton worldwide would draw upon that single sentence to chart their course during a global pandemic of 2020. As many industries face devastating economic impacts and an uncertain future, Hilton’s response to the crisis provides some lessons for other firms that have been hard hit.

Leaning on their sense of purpose – to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality – Hilton was able to rally their employees and start innovating for the future. When I recently spoke with Danny Hughes, Hilton’s President Americas about Hilton’s response, three key strategies emerged that can be used by other leaders facing similar challenges:

  1. Find a noble purpose you can rally around

Before the crisis, did you have a higher purpose, if so what was it? Now is the time to double down on it. If you didn’t have an explicit purpose, what was your implicit purpose? How did you make a difference to customers? That should be your starting point going forward.

When the crisis hit, Hughes says, the Hilton Executive team knew, “We lead with hospitality, we are ultimately in the business of serving people.” This gave them a framework for making fast decisions. Hilton decided to partner with American Express to give away a million free rooms to medical professionals. Hughes reflects on the Executive Team’s conversation, “Our President and CEO (Christopher Nassetta) knew immediately, there was going to be a need. We all looked at him and said go for it.” Free rooms came as welcome relief to frontline medical staff who needed a place to sleep, recharge or isolate, and who might have otherwise had to spend their own money.

The leadership lesson here goes beyond simply being generous. Clarity of purpose before the crisis, enabled Hilton employees of every level to respond quickly. If you don’t have that clarity of purpose today, think about the impact you want to have on your customers, and use that as a starting point. When you frame decisions around your highest aspirations for your customers, your team can come up with bolder ideas. While every team can’t give away their product, leaders can find ways to step up for customers who need them.

  1. Innovate for the long term (sorry amygdala)

When you’re trying to recapture lost revenue, your team is going to be inclined to simply try to do more of what they did in the past. And they’ll probably do it in more frantic ways. This is unlikely to work because circumstances have changed. Even if things aren’t monumentally different in your industry, your customer’s mindset has changed dramatically. Instead of being reactive, think about what the world will look like for your customers a year from now. They may be trapped in today’s problems, but if you and your team can imagine what your customer will be trying to achieve in the future, you can be ahead of the market.

As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” An organization thinking about the impact they want to have on customers in the future has a big advantage over an organization who is simply trying to recapture lost revenue.

In a hospitality world, big meetings were cancelled when COVID hit. While they were handling the immediate crisis Hilton also began thinking about what meeting planners would want when they start to reschedule things. Clarity about their purpose, and thinking about their customers’ and owners’ future needs, prompted Hilton to launch EventReady with CleanStay, a program that includes new cleanliness protocols, greater flexibility in contracting (to enable meeting planners to schedule well in advance without fear of cancelling) along with distancing plans for meetings and utilizing outdoor space.

Your firm’s version of future thinking will be different. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes one year from now, what will be going through their minds? What do they care about, what do they worry about?

  1. Prioritize humanity

For many leaders the first (and natural) thought in a crisis is, what impact will this have on our financials? Preserving economic viability is crucial, but it’s not the full story. How you respond on a human level is what will drive the good will of your staff and customers for years to come.

Hughes describes a situation that revealed how deeply Hilton staff cared about their people and their customers. One of Hughes’ first trips after reopening was to the McLean Hilton, near Hilton headquarters outside Washington DC. Sitting in the lobby, Hughes observes, “This lady comes in with two jugs of milk through the revolving door.” She was Kinko Hamilton, wife of McLean property General Manager, Scott Hamilton. She didn’t work at the hotel, yet despite having just made a cross-country move, and with two kids at home doing remote schoolwork, she’d gone out to get milk so the hotel’s Team Members could have milk with their cereal. Hughes says, “A small act of humanity and hospitality makes a difference to the staff. In all the tragedy that we’re going through, those small acts remind us of our humanity.”

You know your employees care deeply when even their spouses pitch in. Leaders who pull shared humanity front and center and are more likely to have a team that will go the extra mile. On the flip side, when leaders double down on logistics or finances, they miss an important opportunity to unlock the power of compassion and caring with their team. At the end of the day, the firms who rebound from adversity will be those whose employees cared enough to give it their all.

There’s a popular Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Maybe your firm had a founder like Conrad Hilton who planted a sense of purpose, hospitality and humanity into the organization over 100 years ago. If so, it’s time to lean on that purpose and leverage it to help you pivot towards the future.

If you didn’t plant your tree 20 years ago, you have a chance to do it now. Some of the strongest teams are born in crisis. You and your team can use this challenging time as an opportunity to decide what you’re made of and what you stand for. When you claim a purpose bigger than money, your organization takes on new life. You build more confidence for the future. If you’re trying to build resilience, give your people a purpose, then, unleash to do their best work.